15 July 2014

"Music Turns Everyday Banalities into Transcendent Pearls"

I haven't seen John Carney's most famous film, Once, although I do have and love the soundtrack. Its IMDb summary does sound fairly similar to that of his latest film, Begin Again, which stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo:

Once: A modern-day musical about a busker and an immigrant and their eventful week in Dublin, as they write, rehearse and record songs that tell their love story

Begin Again: A chance encounter between a disgraced music-business executive and a young singer-songwriter new to Manhattan turns into a promising collaboration between the two talents.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed Begin Again and will try to check out its less posh predecessor. As Begin Again opens, Greta (Knightley) and Dan (Ruffalo) are both having nightmare days. Greta has just found out that her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) — who is also her musical partner who has recently been signed up to a big record label — has been cheating on her. She leaves him and crashes with her busker friend Steve (James Corden) in his grungy New York apartment. Steve drags her to an open-mic night and at the end of her set forces her to play one of her songs. It's a good song but isn't very well received by the audience. Meanwhile, one-time hotshot record exec Dan manages to lose his job and the respect of his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) in a single day. He has no permanent home but drives around Manhattan in a ridiculous vintage Jag, listening listlessly to CD submissions and desperately trying to find the next big thing.

Drunk and lonely Dan rocks up in the same bar in which Greta is playing. We see this scene twice: once from Greta's point of view and again from Dan's perspective, where he loves the song and imagines what it could become with accompaniments and post-production. Dan tries to sign her up to his (now ex-) label, she rebuffs him, saying she just likes to write songs because she enjoys it. But they go to a bar and talk some more, fight some more, and he persuades her to postpone her flight back to the UK for a few days while she shows Dan's partner at Distressed Records, Saul (Mos Def), her stuff.

It turns out that Saul isn't too keen but he tells Greta to put together a demo and he'll give her another shot. Instead of renting a studio, Greta and Dan decide to record an album at various outdoor sights around Manhattan, from the boating lake in Central Park, to a back alley in the Lower East Side, to a rooftop next door to the Empire State Building. They recruit a series of musicians, including Steve, a couple of Juilliard students, a former ballet-school pianist, some local kids and even Dan's daughter Violet. They have fun and the music sounds great.

Meanwhile Dan and Greta get to know each other better, and a friendship — and maybe more — develops between them. But Greta is still processing her feelings for Dave, who is off on tour being a Big Time Musician, and Dan's relationship with his estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) isn't exactly past tense, either.

Although the phrase 'feel-good movie' usually sends my inner cynic into overdrive, you do come out of Begin Again feeling really upbeat and energised. Knightley, as the uptight, introvert Brit who finds a new confidence in her talent and in herself, is really good, although it's Ruffalo's performance as the drunk, depressed loser who is trying to get back on track that carries the film, and Keener is always fun. As with Once, the songs are great too, my favourite being the screw-you song that Greta makes up and then leaves as a voicemail message on Dave's phone while he is picking up a Grammy. No, Begin Again doesn't really break new ground but it won me over, especially because it's as much of a love story with New York as with music and among the main characters.

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